Curbing the Marketing of Unhealthy Food to Children

Dates of Project: September 2008 to August 2013

Description: Industry spends about $2 billion a year marketing food and beverages to children, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Most such marketing promotes items high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and essential nutrients.

The Food Marketing Workgroup pursued a wide range of research and advocacy activities designed to limit this marketing. Activities initially centered on producing a report card on companies’ food marketing policies, urging companies to improve their marketing practices and policies, and building support for voluntary guidelines proposed by federal agencies.

“The nutrition standards that companies were using were weak and full of loopholes.”—Margo Wootan, DSc, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Key Results

  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest published a Report Card on Food-Marketing Policies in 2009, which gave a letter grade to each of 128 food and beverage manufacturers, restaurant chains, and entertainment companies. Among the findings:

    • Only 41 of the 128 companies had any policy governing their food marketing to children.
    • Most companies earned an F—either because their marketing policies were very weak (eight companies) or because they had no policy at all (87 companies).
    • The Food Marketing Workgroup successfully encouraged companies to adopt policies for food marketing to children and strengthen existing policies.
  • The Food Marketing Workgroup coordinated advocacy and educated regulators, Congress, White House officials, and the public on the importance of voluntary guidelines proposed by the federal Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children.

  • When the government abandoned its guidelines in the face of industry pressure, the Food Marketing Workgroup focused on its other efforts to curtail the advertising of unhealthy food to kids through other avenues. For example, it:

    • Highlighted food marketing targeted at African Americans and Latinos, especially in the digital realm
    • Secured a national policy proposal to remove marketing of unhealthy food in schools
    • Conducted research and advocacy campaigns aimed at improving the quality of restaurant meals aimed at kids
    • Helped achieve a decline in unhealthy food marketing on Nickelodeon, one of the largest children’s entertainment companies. The share of unhealthy food and beverages advertised on Nickelodeon fell from 90 percent in 2005 to 70 percent in 2012.


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#CSPIReportCard: Only 41 of 128 companies had any policy governing their food marketing to children.

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#FoodMarketingWorkgroup helped Nickelodeon reduce its share of unhealthy food&beverage ads from 90% to 70%